#WilliamsWeek – Day 3

It’s day 3 of the #WilliamsWeek, a five-days celebration of composer John Williams on the occasion of his 87th birthday coming February 8. We continue to tribute the work of the Maestro through inspiring quotes taken from interviews of the past and a piece of music from his extensive body of work for films and the concert hall.

(Portrait by © Lefteris Padavos)

I developed from very early on a habit of writing something every day, good or bad. There are good days, and there are less good days, but I do a certain amount of pages it seems to me before I can feel like the day has been completely served. When I am working on a film, of course, it’s a six-day-a-week affair, and when I’m not working on films, I always like to devote myself to some piece, some musical project, that gives me a feeling that I’m maybe contributing in some small way or, maybe more importantly, learning in the process. I work early in the morning. I never worked at night. I was never one of these midnight oil composers. I would always stop in the early evening.

I never experienced anything like a block. For me if I’m ever blocked or I feel like I don’t quite know where to go at the next turn, the best thing for me is to keep writing, to write something. It could be absolute nonsense, but it will project me into the next phase of thinking. And I think if we ourselves as writers get out of the way and let the flow happen and not get uptight about it, so to speak, the muses will carry us along. The wonderful thing about music is it never seems to be exhausted. Every little idea germinates another one. Things are constantly transforming themselves in musical terms. So that the few notes we have, 7, 8 or 12 notes, can be morphed into endless variations, and it’s never quite over, so I think the idea of a block is something we need to work through.

In the film work I look at the film a lot. There is a cutting room, a viewing room so to speak, within the building I work in, and I can look at a scene I am working on for two or three days and see it as often as I need to see it. I can write a few bars, then go look at it. People who have computers and work at synthesizers have that in front of them all the time. I don’t have a synthesizer or computer. I haven’t been educated in that technology. When I was studying and learning music, these things didn’t exist and I’ve actually been too busy in the intervening years to retool and learn it all. And I find that at least for me pencil and paper introduces a process of working that’s as much part of it, it becomes part of the conceptual routine or process of working. It’s tangible. It feels good to hold a pen or pencil in your hand and dirty up paper.

(Quote from “John Williams Lets His Muses Carry Him Along“, James C. McKinley Jr., ArtBeats, 2011)

The musical selection of the day is, once again, a stunning concert adaptation of material originally written for a film: “Escapades for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra” from Catch Me If You Can, the 2002 film directed by Steven Spielberg starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Tom Hanks. The film is based on the real-life story of Frank Abagnale Jr, a young and smart boy who performed successful cons worth millions of dollars by posing as an airline pilot, doctor and prosecutor. His cons were mostly performed through check fraud. He became so experienced that the FBI tailed him for a long time. After being captured and arrested, Abagnale started to collaborate with the FBI to catch other check fraud con artists. The film is a joyful and vivid comedy, but also a bittersweet variation on some of Spielberg’s trademark motifs such as the broken family and the loss of innocence. The 1960s setting inspired composer John Williams to go back to one of his roots and revisit his days as a jazzman (during the 1950s he became a very accomplished jazz pianist in the LA jazz scene). He set out to write a score that could evoke “an impressionistic memoir of the progressive jazz movement that was then so popular”, as the composer wrote in the introductory note of the published score.

The music accompanies the main character’s “escapades” with lively jazz-influenced pieces, but also his own struggle in the relationship with his father through wistful melodic material. The music is built around a simple musical idea, a sort of idée fixe that brilliantly accompanies the cat-and-mouse chase between Abagnale and Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), the FBI agent on his tail. The alto saxophone is given a prominent soloist role, usually doubled by the vibraphone in its sinuous, virtuosic lines. This typical jazz-like ornamentation (which imitates jazz players’ improvisation) is a testament of Williams’ uncanny ability to absorb different musical idioms and coalescing them into a unified, coherent style for the film. The main theme also accompanies the 1960s-inspired animated opening title sequence, bringing back the composer to another of his early years’ associations, namely his collaboration with Henry Mancini on films such as The Pink Panther and Charade, where he performed piano on the film recordings.

The score was unanimously applauded for its freshness and inventiveness, winning to the composer a well-earned Academy Award nomination. The success of the film and its score pushed Williams to revisit the material for concert performance. “Escapades for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra” is a three-movement suite presenting the main thematic material of the film’s score. The first movement (“Closing In”) is the music that accompanies the film’s main title and features the infectious four-note motif that characterize the chase between Abagnale and the FBI, with the alto sax and the vibraphone playing in unison through their roulades and flourishes; Williams also injects a few musical puns such as snapping fingers and “shhh” whispers from the orchestra players. The second movement (“Reflections”) features the bittersweet theme for the relationship between Frank and his father; it’s a lovely and melancholic nocturne, brimful of jazz harmonies that gives the piece a gloomy atmosphere, almost to the point we can feel the spirit of jazz greats such as Charlie Parker and Miles Davis lurking in the background, with long lines in the alto sax and a long cadenza for bass toward the end. The final movement (“Joy Ride”) is a jolly, lighthearted piece that accompanies Frank’s joyous romps as a con-man, featuring again virtuosic flights for alto saxophone and vibraphone.

Williams performed the suite in concert several times and, in 2016, he recorded it in Los Angeles for the album The Spielberg/Williams Collaboration Part III released by Sony Classical. The stunning recording features a trio of amazing soloists: Dan Higgins (who performed also on the original film soundtrack) on the alto saxophone, Michael Valerio at the bass and Austrian percussionist Martin Grubinger on the vibraphone. The recording won a Grammy Award in 2018 for Best Instrumental Arrangement.